Do we have a two-party political system because we love binaries? Or do we love binaries because we have a two-party system? Maybe the answer is somewhere in between. And that’s just my point.
Our affinity for binaries could result from the influence of social media and the unprecedented platform to weigh in with public comment on every headline around the world at all times. News and trends today demand a response: Are you in or out? Are you for or against? Thumbs up or down? American democracy and capitalism catechize their citizens as arbiters of success. And that instinct extends to religion: Is this view right or wrong? Is this figure good or evil? Should I fight or join this cause?
The problem is that not every answer is clear, and not every choice is binary. It’s possible that both sides have a point. It’s possible that two people with the same theological views might also inhabit different contexts and experiences, and thus derive different emphases. One person has been conditioned to fear encroaching liberalism. Another person has been conditioned to fear complicit conservatism. Is either one wrong? Depends on the circumstances. Depends on the issue.
One person has been conditioned to fear encroaching liberalism. Another has been conditioned to fear complicit conservatism. Is either one wrong? Depends on the circumstances. Depends on the issue.
Right and wrong are absolute. But this side of Christ’s return we only know right and wrong from the explicit teaching of Scripture. And not every trend or news event can be evaluated solely on the basis of a biblical text. Wisdom demands prudence. And courage. And humility to love another with empathy that leads to understanding, even where conviction may lead us in separate directions.
Some entries on my 2018 list of top 10 theology stories are more strictly theological, and more clearly right or wrong, than others. At The Gospel Coalition we aim to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ affects all of life. And you’ll find assumptions and beliefs about God in each of these events and trends. Consider my list an admittedly foolhardy attempt—written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement—to discern the most important theology stories of 2018.
You’ll see plenty of occasions to choose sides between right and wrong. But be careful not to demand an either/or where a both/and may be warranted.
10. Missionary martyr leaves behind debate over methods, theology of evangelism.
Christians hold lots of controversial views. But we face the most incredulous opposition with our belief that apart from salvation in Jesus Christ, humanity will be judged by God in hell for eternity. And it’s not just hardened skeptics but many former evangelicals who denounced John Allen Chau after he was killed in his mission to evangelize the natives on North Sentinel Island, far off the coast of India. Among those who share Chau’s sense of urgency in fulfilling the Great Commission, debate ensued over what kind of training and assurances of possible success our churches should expect in the missionaries we support and commission.
9. Unprecedented year of transition opens door for next generation of evangelical leadership.
Though Billy Graham had not recently been active in ministry, his death exposed the need for a rising generation of evangelical leadership, Graham’s own Southern Baptist Convention searched for new top executives at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the SBC Executive Committee, LifeWay Christian Resources, the International Mission Board, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. J. D. Greear won a convincing presidential election in the SBC as a vanguard for the rising generation. The path had been paved for him by an older generation of leaders such as Albert Mohler, who celebrated 25 years as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The broader evangelical community likewise saw unprecedented leadership transition as vacancies opened for top positions at Moody Bible Institute, Beeson Divinity School, Willow Creek Community Church, Park Street Church, and Christianity Today International. Many of these jobs remain open as we look to 2019.
8. Book publishing catches up with shift in apologetic concerns.
How can you answer objections to the Christian faith when an unbeliever wouldn’t even know enough to raise those objections? Apathy is a greater threat to our mission today than antagonism. That means we’ll need ordinary Christians equipped to listen well and ask their neighbors good questions that will help provoke deeper thoughts about the meaning and purpose of life. Thankfully publishers tapped experts from around the world to take up this challenge of evangelism in a skeptical age. Our distracted neighbors need a disruptive witness.
7. Gay Christianity forces everyone to choose sides.
The clamor for clearer lines in the debate over so-called gay Christianity dates back at least to the Nashville Statement of 2017. Those demands grew much louder when a PCA church hosted the Revoice conference to encourage chaste gay and lesbian Christians. To some, the conference looked like a misguided and even dangerous attempt to address the idolatry of family at a time when public opinion in much of the world has swung against God’s created order. You haven’t seen the last of the clashes about whether the term “gay Christian” cedes the identity battle in a way that erodes biblical belief and practice.
6. Tribalism wants to claim every square inch of American culture.
If a lone senator cries out in the wilderness against the tribalism that threatens to overtake our lives, does anyone hear him? The retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, advocate of the “sweet mystery of life” and principal defender of gay marriage and abortion on demand, led to the emotionally draining and enraging confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The church was no refuge from this year’s antagonism, with the polarizing appearance of Vice President Mike Pence at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Good news for principled pluralism came in the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. But the year was characterized by the ever-creeping politicization and division of family, sports, entertainment, and church. With so much energy and money invested in dividing us, and in mobilizing Christians as partisans, we’ll need many more voices calling the church to prioritize the gospel above a worldly political agenda.
5. Catholic abuse scandal worsens as conservative critique of Pope Francis intensifies.
Just when you think the Catholic abuse scandal can’t get worse, we see 1,356 pages showing how nearly every diocese in Pennsylvania covered up abuse over the last 70 years. And even Pope Francis was accused of covering up for a theological ally, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, widely known to have abused young seminarians under his care. Even if Pope Francis had a record of reform in the abuse scandal, he’d still be under suspicion for trying to change church doctrine, particularly in sexual ethics. This year conservative critiques of Pope Francis raised the public specter of a Catholic civil war.
4. Tough talk in the self-help genre attracts big crowds.
Call it the anti-Oprah, politically incorrect effect. But the most popular books of 2018 gave us rules and orders. Jordan Peterson offered 12 Rules for Life as an antidote to chaos and became according to at least one observer the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.” Maybe even more popular among Christian readers is Rachel Hollis, whose Girl, Wash Your Face became probably the most widely discussed book in your church. Both books advocate elements of “moralistic therapeutic deism” and remind us that what passes among some today as Christian spirituality is neither Christian nor spiritual.
3. Social justice strikes some as necessary implication and others as dangerous perversion of the gospel.
If we “just preach the gospel,” will society change? That’s the hope for many who denounce “social justice warriors” as abandoning proper focus on the gospel of salvation. If that’s true, does that mean evangelical churches weren’t preaching the gospel in Memphis 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while protesting unjust wages and unsafe conditions for sanitation workers? There’s more agreement on the priority of evangelism than you might think in the debates over racial reconciliation on Twitter. The main disagreements come over the application or implications of the gospel, especially as it relates to social justice. Both sides see the gospel at stake with the wrong emphasis. And both sides are working to end injustice on earth. The real difference is how they prioritize issues such as abortion, religious freedom, mass incarceration, and officer-involved shootings.
2. Popular pastor wants Christians to unhitch from the Old Testament.
The most generous interpretation of Andy Stanley, perhaps the most influential American pastor today, says he wants to work backward from an apologetic emphasis on Jesus and the resurrection before getting to the authority of Scripture and the witness of the Old Testament. More skeptically, he’s falling into a familiar trap of dichotomizing the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament. Even his supporters should admit that the pastor famous for being a communication savant has contributed great confusion about the New Testament and orthodox approach to the old covenant, which has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. If some have abused or tripped over the old covenant, we should labor in teaching to show them the better way modeled by so many of the church’s great exegetes.
1. #MeToo claims major Christian leaders and elevates theologically rigorous advocate.
The fierce denials of Bill Hybels only temporarily deluded other Willow Creek leaders and ultimately worsened the epic decline of his famous church. The moral compromise of Hybels, so long an advocate of women in ministry even as he seduced some of them, led many to say it’s time to reckon with celebrity power. The willingness of the most popular and powerful female voices in the SBC forced a reckoning in America’s largest Protestant denomination that disgraced one of its longtime conservative leaders. From this wreckage emerged one of the most rigorous theological voices on a national stage in recent memory, as Rachel Denhollander brought a biblical account of justice to bear on maybe the biggest scandal in the history of amateur American athletics.